I’ve enjoyed a lot of firsts in my life. My first crush (Roxy Fox in Kindergarten), my first SAG job (“Murphy Brown”), and my first meeting of a President (Jimmy Carter) in 1988. But there are also unpleasant firsts in life as well which, while notable, are not necessarily among the fondest milestones of my life. This past week I experienced one of those firsts, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. It was the first time I ever had a best friend pass away.
I’m aware that, as I advance in age, this will most likely happen with a lot more frequency. And I’ve had friends pass away in the past, but they were friends who had become acquaintances; the friendship softening with the passage of time. Never before had I experienced the feeling of realization that I would never see a person again, considering that this friend had been a regular staple in my life for 20 years.
On July 21, 2015 my friend and contractor Terry Crisp finally succumbed to the numerous health issues which had been plaguing him for many years. Terry’s first love was a tie between carpentry (which he was very good at) and playing Elvis (which he was very good at). I’ll never forget the day in 1995 when I was working at Universal Studios doing the Beetlejuice stage show. Knowing that I liked to mess with the audience when I came out on stage as “The Ghost with the Most,” the Stage Manager called me on the intercom backstage to tell me that Elvis was in the audience. He had a clear view from the lighting booth of all the audience members and would sometimes give me a “heads up” if anyone interesting was seated in the audience before the show started. It allowed me to get a jumpstart on comedy material I could devise before the show started so I could be ready with a cacophony of funny lines.
Terry had come to the park with some friends and was wearing gold rings, sunglasses, a white shirt and had jet black Elvis hair and sideburns. Ohhh…this was going to be fun! During the pre-show I sought him out and said to the audience, “In this show we’re in the business of raising the dead, but this is ridiculous. Elvis stand up and take a bow!” He stood up, struck an Elvis pose and waved at the audience. He was loving every minute of the attention. I continued to poke fun at him all through the show. After the performance he waited outside the theater where the castmembers would gather to do a Meet-N-Greet. We got a photo together and we exchanged numbers. He was a good sport and, as an Elvis fan, a kindred spirit.
We stayed in touch and became fast friends. He showed me some of the things he had created and constructed, and it was obvious that he had a real gift for working with wood, metal and construction tools. When I bought my house in 2000 he was the first call I made. There were certain things I wanted to do to the interior of the house, and he got right to work making my ideas a reality. I enjoyed throwing him the most insane ideas, and watching him figure out how to make them possible. And he had plenty of good ideas of his own which contributed to the fun atmosphere of Planet Wallywood enormously.
Fifteen years later, you can’t go into any room in my house without seeing something that he made. The first major project he created was the main showcase on the second floor, which houses a good portion of my toy collection. It has custom lighting and removable glass shelves so I can move things around and change up the displays. The final project he did was to create a “Wizard of Oz” Tin Man bust by hand out of copper sheet metal. It’s probably his most amazing accomplishment among all of the numerous things he had created for “Planet Wallywood.” When people walk into the Puppet Room where the “Oz” busts are displayed, their common reaction is to gasp in disbelief. He was a true artist in many ways.
For many years Terry had struggled with alcoholism. It had gotten to critical mass in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. But when he finally decided to go on the wagon and join AA in the late 2000’s, he visited my house and came clean. He said he had hidden bottles of booze all around my house so he could imbibe while working. Together we found every one of them and poured them down the drain. I was proud of him. I knew he had a problem with alcohol, and despite my constant encouragement to seek help, I wasn’t sure he would ever do anything about it. Clearly he had endured enough and was ready to make a change. At the time he passed away he was on his way to 6 years of sobriety.
But the years of alcohol abuse had worn on his body something fierce, and many of the effects were irreversible. The damage had been done. During the time has was active in AA he became a sponsor and aided countless people deal with their disease and the effects of weening themselves off alcohol. We’ll probably never know an exact number of how many people he ended up helping, but it was a lot.
During the last three years of his life he finally found marital bliss with an old friend of his who had gotten back in touch with me. Her two teenage sons were fans of mine from the Batman “Arkham” games and she e-mailed me to see if I remembered her. We corresponded and she asked if her sons could meet me and get autographs. When she brought them over I started thinking that Terry might enjoy getting back in touch with her after all these years. He could really use the pick-me-up! About 8 months later Terry and Michelle were married.
Luckily, Michelle had been a nurse during her career. So it was fortuitous that they found each other at that point in Terry’s life, given his declining health. She helped him along with medications, doctor visits and physical and spiritual support. But it was becoming clear that all the years of alcohol abuse was starting to have a domino effect on his body. It seemed like he was being admitted into the hospital for a different affliction every month. So when the news came of his passing I wasn’t completely surprised. Through it all he never lost his sense of humor, and his poor health never affected his big heart; his compassion for others’ needs.
During a recent visit to Planet Wallywood to fix a few things around the house it became clear that he wasn’t going to be able to work much longer. He would get fatigued quickly, and he wasn’t able to get up ladders or squat down easily. The final month of his life was spent selling off the majority of his tools in his shop so he could downsize to a smaller home. He was devastated. Not only was he no longer able to perform as Elvis because of his poor health, he was now no longer able to do what he loved more than anything; carpentry, wood crafting and creating. I told him it might be God’s way of telling him to retire and enjoy a simple life with Michelle. He said that was what everyone was telling him, but he didn’t sound convinced. I could tell he was hurting and the walls were caving in.
When Terry’s brother called me on July 21, 2015 to tell me that Terry had passed away that morning, he said that it was obvious Terry had lost the will to live. He simply didn’t have it in him to fight any longer. The insurmountable health issues were too much for him to take.
At his memorial service I purposely sat in the very last row, while his immediate family sat in the first few rows. I did that on purpose. I knew that I would be chuckling and snickering through some of the service as the wild, wacky times he and I used to share would flood my memory. I didn’t shed one tear throughout the service, and I think Terry would have wanted it that way. But I smiled a lot in joyous reflection. Boy we had some good times!
As I sifted through all the photos I had of Terry, so I could scan them and send them to his wife for the memorial service slideshow, it occurred to me that he and I never really had any “normal” pictures taken together. I’m always dressed as some zany character, and he’s always there beside me playing along.
In addition to benefitting from his amazing carpentry work in my house, I also benefitted from being able to spend afternoons with him while he worked. While I worked on other stuff, he was busy crafting and creating our latest project. It allowed us to chat, learn about each other’s lives, talk about future projects, exchange thoughts and feelings about life, and generally give each other a whole lot of crap. He was REALLY good at the latter part!
I’ll always consider him a brother, a friend, a confidante, and one of the best human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. Rest in Peace, my friend.
Terry…has left the building.